Thursday, November 08, 2007

Pregnancy and Exercise Reprise

With Paula Radcliffe's marathon win fresh in our minds, Gina Kolata has again written on the scary dangers of exercise during pregnancy.

The article begins with an anecdote about an athlete whom Kolata describes as "knowing no bounds." She ran 7-minute miles while pregnant--but without discomfort and without harming her fetus or her own abdominal muscles.

Next, Kolata reviews the research on exercise during pregnancy. Studies consistently show that when women exercise to the level that they find personally comfortable, there are not increased risks to their babies or themselves. She quotes a doctor who reviewed the literature:
We looked at training patterns during pregnancy and postpartum,” Dr. Pivarnik said. “And we asked, ‘Was the amount of training related at all to adverse events?’ The answer was no.

She writes that some of the most common advice given to pregnant women is to keep their
heart rate below 140 beats a minute. That pretty much guarantees you won’t be exerting yourself much. It was in 1985 guidelines set by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

The article doesn't mention that this advice was retracted a few years later because it was unsupported by evidence.

Finally, Kolata ends with three anecdotes about women who were all satisfied with their decisions to stop or significantly cut back on their exercise during pregnancy.

There is something strange about this. The evidence cited suggests that there's no problem with vigorous exercise. But practically all the anecdotes (which are what one remembers) are of people who don't follow the evidence. I would like to hear first-person anecdotes that coincide with what the doctors and medical studies say!

Moreover, by citing anecdotes about extremely effective athletes--marathon winners, swimmers of the English Channel, Kolata gives the impression that the only women who would even try to exercise during pregnancy are professionals. I'm no athlete. I consider a 10-minute mile to be an excellent personal pace. But I have never enjoyed running as much as I did while pregnant. My training improved for the first 20 weeks, then I slowed my pace, and I eventually switched to moderate swimming during the last couple of months.

Although Kolata speculates about what might go wrong due to exercise in pregnancy, she doesn't mention even one reason why women would want to exercise. There are many:
1. Moderate and vigorous exercise can reduce morning sickness and nausea.
2. Exercise helps to maintain strength and flexibility. These are certainly required for the later stages of pregnancy and for motherhood.
3. Being engaged in physical activity helps one to focus on one's physical state--thereby increasing awareness of changes and possible problems.
4. Exercise reduces stress and has significant benefits for mental health. It stabilizes mood and increases self-confidence.
5. Exercise helps to regulate appetite and sleep, both of which can be negatively affected during pregnancy.
6. Exercise is a part of many people's routines and identity. There ought to be good cause for relinquishing a routine or a favorite activity, especially when going through other physical, social, and emotional changes.

Feminists should address more vocally the advice and treatment that doctors give to pregnant women and new mothers which limits their activities and choices without any counterbalancing benefit.

Rixa has recently written about feminism and the mainstream medical treatment of pregnancy and birth:
Birth issues are noticeably absent from almost any feminist platform. That's a shame, I think. The National Organization for Women has recently made some statements about birth issues, including a statement against VBAC bans, but otherwise feminism has been oddly silent on the birth side of "reproductive rights."

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